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It’s crowded in the jeans pool

Sales keep rising but some retailers worry there are too many women’s premium denim labels

Women’s denim is having a good year. Total sales in the UK are up 4% to £782.5m in the 12 months to September 1, according to research firm Kantar. In the past three years alone, numerous denim brands have launched both globally and into the UK. In July 2012, Koral launched in the US and made its UK debut shortly after in September. It now has 30 UK stockists including Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Similarly, US brand AND (which stands for A New Denim Brand) launched for spring 13 in the UK and US and counts Selfridges, Harrods and London retailer Trilogy among its stockists. Australian label Neuw Denim, founded in 2010, is making its UK debut for spring 14.

But are these new brands adding value to the premium denim market or are they saturating a sector full of established names such as J Brand, 7 For All Mankind and Current/Elliott?

“There are far too many denim brands,” says Anna Park, founder of eight-store contemporary womenswear retailer Anna. “I probably get called by a denim brand every day just ahead of buying season.”

Park says brands try to justify their premium price tags by “pitching” a complex wash or more flattering fit, but that customers are becoming savvy to this. “We’ve spent years ripping them off in a way,” she says, predicting that “premium denim is on its way down”, also partly due to improvements in the quality of cheaper high street denim. Park cites J Brand, Goldsign and Mother as bestsellers, but is looking to cheaper alternatives such as jeans from Selected Femme.

Jo Davies, owner of womenswear boutique Black White Denim in Wilmslow, Cheshire, also acknowledges the market could “top out” but notes the cyclical nature of fashion. “[Premium denim] will plateau, decline then rise again,” she explains, adding that she opts for brands that give her exclusives, including Denham and Frame.

But Jeff Rudes, founder of J Brand, maintains the emotional factor of buying jeans is what separates the denim market from other clothing sectors. “People don’t see £100 or £200 as a lot of money [for jeans]” he says. “Jeans are one of the only products that have that emotional level to it. Women want to feel good in them.”

Rudes’ confidence in the market, for J Brand at least, is not misplaced. The brand has more than 140 UK stockists and autumn 13 was its best-ever season in terms of sales since its UK launch seven years ago. “We don’t worry [about competition],” says Rudes. “The market isn’t growing or sinking in a big way in either direction. Brands come and go, so the space isn’t particularly changing.”

His attitude is reflected in consumer buying behaviour, with brand loyalty high on shoppers’ priorities, according to Laura Willis, denim buyer at designer womenswear store Jane Davidson in Edinburgh. “We’ve always had four denim brands,” she explains. “J Brand is our top-seller and is particularly good for new fabric technologies.

We also carry Ida, Mother and, new for autumn 13, Genetic, which is mainly about fit. Denim shopping is bamboozling so we limit our selection.”

In addition, many brands do not think the market is saturated. “If you compare a shoe department to a denim department, there are far fewer denim brands,” says Jens Grede, co-founder of US brand Frame. “Plus there are only a handful of pure denim brands now. Many have branched out to apparel. If you have a defined aesthetic, it can translate to any category. Denim can be the starting point.” Indeed, Koral has branched out into separates such as shirting for spring 14, while US brand NYDJ has debuted jackets.

Donna Ida Thornton, founder of denim indie Donna Ida and the Ida brand, remains bullish about the health of her sector. “I can’t see it topping out,” she insists. “What else will we wear?”

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